For most Americans, the month of July is synonymous with Independence Day and related celebrations. However, the month also holds a less widely-known title; National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), this title was created by the House of Representatives in 2008 in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell, “a leading African-American novelist and journalist, who also was a voice for individuals and families affected by mental illness.” Her work has had a powerful impact on the Black community, which has often struggled with stigma around mental health conditions and underrepresentation in mental health services. Let’s take a moment to honor her legacy, and review why her work was so crucial.
Bebe Moore Campbell’s Advocacy
Bebe Moore Campbell was born in 1950 in Philadelphia. She initially embarked on a career in elementary education in Pittsburgh and later in Washington, DC. However, after publishing a short story in Essence magazine she became taken with the idea of working as a writer and eventually switched careers.
Particularly in her later work, Campbell explored the Black community’s relationship to mental illness. Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry (2005), for example, is an illustrated children’s book told through the eyes of a young girl whose mother has bipolar disorder. A later novel, 72 Hour Hold (2005), traces a mother’s frantic efforts to find services for her 18-year-old daughter with bipolar disorder.
In addition to writing, Campbell used her personal experiences to advocate for mental health care and education, especially for Black Americans. She co-founded the Urban Los Angeles affiliate of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). She also received NAMI’s 2003 Outstanding Media Award for Literature, and ultimately, “…[outlined] the concept of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month” with her friend Linda Wharton-Boyd.
Sadly, Campbell passed away from brain cancer in 2006. In one of her last interviews, she talked about her family’s experience with mental illness and how she was able to find consolation through support groups.
“We [the Black community] don’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about it either. I went into denial. I was ashamed. I was very stigmatized by this illness that had no business in my family,” she stated.
Stigma Within the Black Community
Campbell’s work helped raise awareness within the Black community about the importance of recognizing, and addressing, mental illness. Her efforts stand as a reminder that the work is ongoing and the consequences of ignoring the issue are considerable.
In 2018, the suicide rate of Black school-age children surpassed that of their white counterparts, and more than a third of school-age suicides were among Black children. Further, research suggests that while Black adults are 20% more likely “to report serious psychological distress than whites,” they are much less likely than whites to seek assistance.
A 2013 study from the Agency for Health Care Quality and Research indicates that among adults with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, “54.3% of adult Black/African Americans … received treatment compared with 73.1% of adult white Americans.” This suggests reluctance on the part of Black Americans to seek services, despite high rates of psychological distress within the population.
Why might this be?
The evidence points to several factors, including long-held cultural beliefs, racial bias within the healthcare system, and a comparatively low number of Black clinicians working in mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, the leading mental health organization in the country, only 2% of members are Black. White therapists, even if well-intentioned, don’t share the lived experience of racism and its mental health implications, and may not be trained in culturally-sensitive approaches that help them recognize the way prejudice affects their clients.
Further complicating the matter, access to mental health care is disproportionately lower for Black Americans. As with the U.S. health-care system, mental health programs are historically structured and organized around the needs of White clients. According to Mental Health America, a leading advocacy group, “historical adversity, which includes…race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African-Americans today…[which], in turn, is linked to mental health.”
Ways to take action
So how can you, as an individual, help change the Black community’s relationship with mental illness and associated services?
There are plenty of ways to get involved. You can start by educating yourself on the issues so that you understand the factors that influence Black access to mental health care. Then, you can work with local organizations to raise awareness about mental health needs within the Black community. You can also advocate for culturally-sensitive programs and services. A good place to start is Mental Health America’s #NotACharacterFlaw and #MyStoryMyWay campaigns.
By speaking openly about your own experience with mental illness or treatment, you can let others know they are not alone. Whether you write a blog or op-ed, create an educational initiative or club, or simply speak about your history, you can do a lot to change perceptions and challenge prejudices.
By educating ourselves and others, we can work toward a society where no one fears asking for mental health support. To quote Bebe Moore Campbell, “Once my loved ones accepted the diagnosis, healing began for the entire family, but it took…years. Can’t we, as a nation, begin to speed up that process? We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African Americans…It’s not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible.”
Langley Parker is a former intern and employee of Viva. She aspires to become a therapist, and to focus on working with adolescents and young adults within marginalized communities. Beginning in the fall, she will be working on earning her M.S. in Clinical Professional Counseling, and aspires to complete her doctorate.